H.D. is primarily remembered as a quintessential imagist poet, whose frequently anthologized poem “Oread” is a perfect testimony of her ability to write laconic and musical lines through crystalline images. It really stands to reason that H.D. is pigeonholed as an imagist within the modernist tradition, but that is too simple. Her identity as a woman distinguishes her oeuvre from other imagist works and makes it possible to interpret her poems with reference to feminism. From the feminist perspective, her poems “Sea Rose” and “Helen” both deconstruct stereotyped female images. The former lends masculinities to the metaphorical flower while the latter through a direct presentation of the female body expresses a more radical and postmodernist feminist view.
Women are often likened to flowers for they are both thought to be fair, fragile and fertile. Such comparison derives from the belief that women are closer to nature, for which Sherry B. Ortner provides an explanation that women’s body is often the sources of discomfort and dooms them to reproduction of life (74-5). The close relationship between women and nature finds an echo in literary works, especially those penned by male writers. For example, Robert Burns depicts ingeniously his love as “a red, red rose” newly sprung in June. W. B. Yeats also compares the image of his beloved one to a rose blossoming in the deep of his heart. Such affectionate similes actually serve to objectify women and render them as gorgeous and tender as flowers for men’s gaze and appreciation. However, the rose described by H.D., withered and thin, is tough enough to brave the waves and wind. Unlike traditional literary representations of flowers, the image of H.D.’s rose emanates distinct features in terms of physiognomy, environment and spirit. Firstly, the rose with “meager flower” and “small leaf” is “marred”, “thin” and “stunted”. Men of course are unlikely to adore it because they usually expect to see flowers either in bright blossom or in plump bud. Reluctant to accept such regular images in her poem, H.D. portrays an almost lifeless rose with an unpleasant look—“stint of petals” and “sparse of leaf”. But she does not intend to create a feeble rose waiting for men’s sympathy and protection. In the last stanza, she uses “spice” and “acrid” to modify the rose and its fragrance respectively, further weaning it off the stereotyped comparison between females and flowers. Secondly, the environment in which the rose grows is also different from traditional places such as protective gardens and snug houses. The indoor flowers bearing a striking resemblance to women actually suggest the patriarchal model of gender relations that require women to stay at home as the guardians of the family. Deliberately or unknowingly, H.D. puts her rose on the wild seagirt sand, showing defiance of women’s familiar and familial place in the patriarchal society. Instead of being fixed to a specific place, the rose in H.D.’s poem drifts in the billows and then flutters in the wind. Its fluid status shows women’s ability to escape from the home and enjoy a travelling subject, although the journey may be beset with difficulties. Thirdly, the rose, though buffeted by the violent waves and “flung on the sand”, still remains intact and even emits the “acrid fragrance”. The tough and strong spirit it shows in the miserable environment is an obvious backlash against the weak female/flower images formed in the long-term practices of the patriarchal ideology. And H.D. finds the sea rose, deprived of an enchanting look and a comfortable habitat, “more precious” because of its bravery and fortitude.
Although H.D. succeeds in creating an unconventional rose image, she actually does it by lending typical masculine characteristics to it such as the tough spirit shown in the forlorn situation. The subversive female/flower image in “Sea Rose” depends on the unlikelihood of women practising the masculinities they represent. In other words, this poem still recognizes the masculine/feminine binary opposition and seems to regard masculinities as superior to femininities. But “Helen” that celebrates the famous mythological figure’s delicate and impeccable body is a poem strongly reminiscent of the idea of Hélène Cixous who “argues for a positive representation of femininity in a discourse she calls ‘écriture féminine’” (Selden, Widdowson, and Brooker 135). The direct description of Helen’s body in the poem not only opposes the conventional opinion that stigmatizes her as the scourge of war but also embraces women’s differences. The representations of Helen in the poems written by men such as Homer and Yeats usually reflect the emotion of misogyny at the heart of male worship of women’s beauty. Homer in his great epic attributes the outbreak of Trojan War to Helen, the mesmerizing and frivolous beauty. Yeats in “No Second Troy” tries to create a parallel between Helen and Maud Gonne as well as between the Trojan War and the anti-British revolutionary activities of Irishmen. He blames Maud, like Helen, for filling Irishmen with hatred and violence, and causing bloodshed and destruction. In response to male writers’ disdain for Helen, H.D. redefines Helen’s nature of innocence and chastity. As seen from the poem, although the Greeks hate and revile Helen, she is still white and pure irrespective of their prejudice. Her fine features and delicate body, deemed to be the root of disasters, turn out to be something worth lauding and celebrating in H.D.’s poem. H.D. does not objectify Helen or lend masculinities to her as she does in “Sea Rose”. Instead, she simply offers a crystalline picture of Helen including her “still eyes”, “wan face”, “white hands”, “cool feet” and “slenderest knees”, which challenges her long-term bad reputation constructed in male-dominated history, society and literature. From this revisionary perspective, the image of “hated Helen” is indeed a scapegoat created by the patriarchal ideology that treats women as men’s “other”, but the real Helen is the human incarnation of the Goddess, or rather purity and chastity. The way that H.D. reconstructs the image of Helen in the poem coincides with what Hélène Cixous ecstatically writes in her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa”: “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing […] Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement” (151). By presenting the body of Helen, H.D. voices dissatisfaction with the sexual stereotype and emphasizes women’s differences in body structure. To this extent, H.D.’s “Helen”, in a modernist poetic form, expresses a postmodernist view that embraces Derrida’s principle of “différance”.
In conclusion, “Sea Rose” reconstructs a masculine female/flower image while “Helen” steps outside the masculine/feminine binary opposition and focuses on the female body’s particularity. Although they both belong to the modernist poetry and convey feminist views, the latter one appears to be more radical and postmodernist because of its celebration of women’s body and difference.
Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” A Theoretical Reader in Motherhood. Ed. Liu Yan. Wuhan: Wuhan UP, 2007. 151-62.
Ortner, Sherry B.. “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” Women, Culture, and Society. Ed. M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1974. 68-87.
Selden, Raman., Peter Widdowson, and Peter Brooker. A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. 5th ed. London: Pearson Education Limited, 2005.